Now here’s remarkable

Long piece in The Guardian about the cock ups on the new railway schedules. About which I say:

Ah, they tried to change the whole system, at once, as a central planner would, instead of a bit or organic tweaking here and there as a proper market system would.

We’re then to use the failure of that centrally planned approach, that convulse the system into the one big change, as a justification to have a centrally planned system subject to convulsive heaves into change, are we? We just can’t see the logic there ourselves.

And about which John Harris says:

To recap: new timetables were meant to be introduced as part of a big drive to improve services. But, as with Govia Thameslink in the south-east, Northern – a franchise operated by Arriva, the multinational transport giant that is a subsidiary of Germany’s state-owned Deutsche Bahn – had not trained enough drivers. At the same time, Network Rail compounded the mess by allowing electrification work to overrun. An overlooked factor in the chaos is the legacy of something that happened six years ago, when Network Rail centralised its timetabling operations in Milton Keynes, and created a system that had far too little connection with realities on the ground. Such is yet another example of one of the great ironies of recent history: that Thatcherite believers in the liberating wonders of markets have proved to be very good at creating byzantine, top-down, endlessly failing systems rather suggestive of the worst aspects of the old Soviet Union.

That we agree on the basic analysis here is fun, no? Or possibly, given that it’s us agreeing, a sign of the impending apocalypse.

25 comments on “Now here’s remarkable

  1. I would say the market was more prone to quick and dramatic upheaval, the problem with what is essentially State management, is that it never has a complete re think .
    What is genuinely odder about this small story of a slight teething troubles is that in terms of disruption it is barely noticeable compared to the year of no services at all caused by the endless Southern Rail dispute

    I have been puzzling as to why it has attracted so much attention

  2. I use GTR trains. The train I catch is now scheduled a minute earlier than last year, has turned up on time except for one occasion, and I now even get a seat. So, personally I’m a bit flummoxed about what the fuss is all about. Not exactly chaos.

  3. Infrastructure owned and ‘managed’ by a company with one shareholder, the British State, services over the infrastructure sub-contracted out by franchise by their owner, the British State, fares determined by the British State, circa £1 billion annually paid to the franchisees by the British State.

    Privatised? Market? Thatcherite?

    Definately Socialist.

  4. Most of the time, they do just do “organic tweaking”. But once in a while big changes are needed: new lines are built, faster trains are supplied, etc. Assuming you’ve got all your fast trains ready, still running to the old (slow) timetable, you can’t organically tweak one train to run faster without having all the trains in front of him run faster too.

    Fundamentally though, there’s a trade-off between reliability and efficiency. You can easily run a reliable railway at (say) 80% efficiency. Then along comes a fat controller who thinks he can squeeze a few more % points out, except now you have no margin for error. He’ll blame teething troubles, win his CBE, and shuffle on to a different job.

  5. What I really don’t understand about this is what training the drivers need?
    I was not aware that a lorry driver (for example) would need special training to go to a different town. So why do train drivers? Am I missing something?

  6. Most lorry drivers don’t have to start braking half a mile from town. I expect they have to know where the stations are, when to brake, etc.

  7. Rob – can markers be built? Can satnav type systems be fitted to the drivers cab? Can automated systems be built next to the track informing passing trains they are approaching a station?

    Does it really require a driver to reach a certain tree / building visible from the line before they know to start slowing down?

    Near me is a speed limit sign, so I know to slow down when in a car.

  8. Yup. A family member used to be a driver, finally retired about 10 or 15 years ago. Drivers have to be qualified on the locomotive unit, like pilots for aircraft, plus any other systems added to it, like the SPAD warning system, and also qualified on the route (industry jargon used to be road, amusingly). Basically because of what Rob says.

    This results in the old “train crew not available” passenger announcement being made when the crew are actually there, but the train is of the wrong type, or they have to wait until they get clearance to disengage a system they’re not cleared to use, or when track problems results in the train being diverted down a route they’re not cleared on.

    To be honest, I get the impression that a lot of those issues were pretty rare by the mid-2000s.

    But they’ve suddenly reared their ugly heads again with these timetable changes and the associated track and rolling stock upgrades underlying.

    Another bit of family lore; at privatisation, a very large chunk of the timetable that BR was operating at the time, was only possible because the drivers worked overtime. There were not enough drivers available to run the network at normal shift patterns. That was down to ASLEF and the closed shop.

  9. Martin – yup, for some routes a lot of that has been done. However, there’s a dependency that the rail routes and stations were built when none of that technology was available. To give an example, one of the classes of sliding door trains had the door interlock controlled by what was effectively GPS, but there’s a number of stations where there’s no reliable signal – Tunbridge Wells was one, which also suffers from a different but related problem of platform length. Cue much buggering about by the train crew trying to jiggle an 8 or 12 coach train into just the right position to get the signal to allow the doors to open. Or just giving up and following the procedure to disengage the system, open the doors manually and then re-engaging it, with the added joy of possibly having to reboot the entire train system to get moving again.

  10. The noise has/is being made by ZaNu and Co.

    Another cock up narrative–like so-called “austerity” –handed by BluLab to its supposed foes.

  11. The thing is that at the speed trains run, because of the comparatively limited breaking available, the margin for error is quite small – couple that to the complexity of the railway signalling system that has to be understood (given that the network is still a mix of everything from the mechanical signaling of the 1890s to the computer controlled stuff currently being installed), and the tightness of modern timetables (no good having a driver going gently to “feel his way” as the path he gets will probably be as fast as his train is able to traverse the section).

    Both route knowledge and traction knowledge don’t last indefinitely – drivers have to go for regular refreshers, particularly for routes or traction they sign but don’t regularly use. This all gets expensive, so the operators have been cutting back on “unnecessary” knowledge – with the result that if things go wrong (like the current debacle), they’ve much less resilience than historically was the case.

  12. Another bit of family lore; at privatisation, a very large chunk of the timetable that BR was operating at the time, was only possible because the drivers worked overtime. There were not enough drivers available to run the network at normal shift patterns.

    I’m sure this is still the case. Not sure this was just a union thing – fixed costs of employing extra staff are almost certainly greater then simply paying existing staff overtime.

  13. Rob, yeah, it’s interesting that some of the comments under the John Harris article say the same thing, and that if it was as bad as was suggested to me, it would take quite some time to sort.

  14. “Network Rail … Thatcherite believers”: but wasn’t Network Rail created under Blair when the government stole Railtrack plc from its owners i.e. shareholders?

    I even remember the face of the creepy wee twat who was Transport Secretary at the time: Stephen Byers. He eventually resigned under a cloud for something or other. Being a twat, basically.

  15. The original 1994 privatisation tried desperately to find parts of BR that someone might be prepared to pay for. The only real value was in the real estate, much of it in prime city locations, albeit inconveniently joined up by lengths of metal rails that no-one had any great interest in. And thus was Railtrack born (and fairly swiftly died).

  16. John Harris says: “I live in Frome, in Somerset, a growing town of 25,000 with a railway station that sits on a branch line that ends in Weymouth. It is basically a single track covered by a huge wooden shed, and is regularly unstaffed. Our trains are run by the Great Western Railway, formerly known as First Great Western, but renamed in an apparent attempt to make us avert our eyes from daily delays and think of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.”

    If he lives in Frome and doesn’t know the “wooden shed” was deigned and built by Brunel’s assistant to Brunel’s spec* – thus listed building – I wouldn’t trust his views on anything of importance.

    Typical empty-head leftie ranting.

    * Frome railway station designed by T. R. Hannaford, an assistant to I. K. Brunel, and opened on 7 October 1850. This timber construction is largely unaltered and a rare example of a Brunellian through train shed still used for its original purpose. Listed Grade II

    Isambard Kingdom Brunel is better known for the Menai Bridge and the doomed luxury liner, the Great Eastern. Though it is one of his less imposing works, for the trained eye it has several important features such as an overall roof.

  17. John Harris is a plazzy Manc who made his name as a music journalist, and now pens nonsense for the Guardian and writing average music “memoirs”…

    Northern Rail can be shit, but if he’d stayed nearer to Victoria or Piccadilly he’d be sound.

  18. There’s really almost nothing free market about rail. About the only real wiggle room for the rail companies is who they hire to look after the trains (better people than historically, which is why breakdowns have fallen A LOT since “privatisation”) and what gets served in the buffet car.

    When the minister announces there will be better wifi, that’s not the free market.

    A free market would involve digging up the rails, laying tarmac where they were and having toll roads for buses with pricing based on demand. You’d improve reliability, capacity and lower cost.

  19. BoM4

    “You’d improve reliability, capacity and lower cost.”

    Would you now? Reliabilitywise I can see buses beating trains. But because of the speeds they go at and number of passengers you can cram on, I would have thought railways win on capacity (you could have practically bumper-to-bumper buses, I suppose, but at the speed they’d go at, would there be demand to use the capacity?).

  20. “I live in Frome, in Somerset, a growing town of 25,000 with a railway station that sits on a branch line that ends in Weymouth. It is basically a single track covered by a huge wooden shed, and is regularly unstaffed. Our trains are run by the Great Western Railway, formerly known as First Great Western, but renamed in an apparent attempt to make us avert our eyes from daily delays and think of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. If you want to travel the 100 miles to London at peak time, a return ticket bought on the day will cost you £172.”

    So it’s unstaffed? So what? Buy a ticket on a train. Why do you need staff?

    Yeah, it costs £172 because the trains are full at that price. Why would anyone charge less? Why would we want them to charge less? We lease these franchises. We want them maximising use to deliver a better return to taxpayers.

    And FFS just work around it. It’s £120 from Swindon and I’ve never paid it. Go early, catch a National Express. Go later, get an off-peak. Drive to Hungerford – the roads are quiet, parking is cheap and you’re just inside Network South East. Costs about £60 return. Done that. Or use the internet. They’ve got that in Frome?

    “During the working week there are three feasible morning rush-hour train services to Bristol, two of which leave before 7am, with an hour’s gap before a service that leaves just after eight o’clock. Each one takes around an hour – almost as long as it takes to drive. For the two hours up to 10.15am, there are no trains at all. To make things even more painful, as subsidies have been slashed, local bus provision has been hacked down. So the car remains king, and the town is subject to regular gridlock.”

    Maybe you shouldn’t have moved there then.

    Not everyone cares about having a fast rail link. Millions of people, even quite senior people, don’t commute far. Maybe a couple of miles to work. They get home and watch TV. Maybe pop out to a multiplex to see The Avengers. Eat in a pub nearby.

    Less than 10% of all journeys are by rail, but listen to the fucking whines about it. Mostly from people who are going to go and sit at a desk. Like what they could have at home.

  21. MyBurningEars,

    It would be hard to keep up with speed but you would boost capacity. You get lots of people on a train but there’s big gaps between each trains.

  22. So basically the nation must pay for there to be enough trains from Frome to London such that the cost of a return ticket is say £50, just because one journalist live in Frome and wants to go to London at short notice, and expects the world to revolve around him?

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